Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Big Themes

John McFetridge

In the last couple of weeks I saw two stage plays and read two novels. The plays were “big theme” stories. Rock and Roll by Tom Stoppard was about the Czeck Republic emerging from communism, it takes place between 1968 and 1993 and has a lot to say about totalitarianism and freedom and spirit – and Pink Floyd and the Rolling Stones and the Beach Boys.

Stuff Happens by David Hare is the story of the Bush Administration and how they got into Iraq. It has all the big players in it; Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Blair, Rice, Powell – Saddam isn’t in it but there are a few lines from an Iraqi refuge and a Palestinian. Big geopolitic ideas discussed.

The novels weren’t about such big events. George V, Higgins’ Cogan’s Game is about, well, a lot of things. It starts out with two very small time crooks who get out of jail and talk to another guy they met in jail – a small-time operator himself – about robbing a big-money card game. Not movie-style, multi-million dollar big money, but fifty grand – big money to these guys.

Like Higgins’ other Boston novels, The Friends of Eddie Coyle and The Digger’s Game, the book is almost all dialogue, it’s just like being in the room or the car or on the bus with these guys and listening to them talk. Sometimes it’s frustrating – they aren’t the brightest guys – but mostly you understand where they’re coming from and what they want. And it’s always small stuff.

Old City Hall is kind of a big sweeping story that covers a lot of the same ground as my novels, the whole “multicultural Toronto,” but it takes place in much nicer places than my books. It’s a traditional murder mystery, a woman is found dead in the first chapter and then lots of characters piece together what really happened to her. It’s really a very personal tragedy, and quite self-contained.

Elmore Leonard has said that he doesn’t know what the themes are in his books until Scott Frank adapts them into screenplays and shows him, but that’s just Elmore poking the academics and big-time critics who can’t tell the difference between genre and literature but think they can.

I use theme as a crutch. When I’m writing a book and I hit a snag, or when I get into what Linwood Barclay so accurately calls the, “mushy middle,” I write a scene that may not advance the plot, but does explore the theme. Sometimes those scenes even stay in the book, but even if they get cut they’ve helped keep the momentum going and helped me work out the theme a little more myself.

But I don’t want the theme to overtake the action. I like big theme stories like Rock and Roll and Stuff Happens but they both kept the story moving and were very enertaining, They both had plenty of jokes – dark, twisted jokes, maybe, but the auidiences still laughed.

In Dirty Sweet the theme is opportunity – how some people see it everywhere and others don’t see it anywhere. Okay, not exactly groundbreaking stuff, but complicated enough for me.

Right now I’m at the mushy middle of the book I’m working on and I’m writing a lot of stuff that may not make it past the final edit, but it is helping me get a real handle on the theme.

So, how much do you think about theme? When you write and when you read?


pattinase (abbott) said...

My first stab at a novel had no theme other than being a female outsider. This book has a huge theme and I feel like it's driving the car too much. I need to pull back on it, I think. Oh, for the stories. They are so much easier for me.

Steve Weddle said...

I appreciate the idea of putting stuff in that just has to go in, but might not make it through the first round of edits.

I'll sometimes have a character say something -- some piece of motivation -- as a sort of placeholder, counting on coming back through and making it readable.

"Jake, I have to do this. If I don't do this, Frankie's death was pointless." Blah, blah. But if the theme is finding and defining yourself in a community (or some other such nonsense) and that's his motivation, well, I feel as if I have to put a stake in the ground there.

And then come back later and pick up the stake and move some heavier stuff in, or whatever continues my stooopid metaphor.

John McFetridge said...

Patti, like all things, I guess, it's a matter of balance.

Steve, I really learned that working in TV, we were constantly saying, "Okay, we'll stick a pin in that for now." Some people would even draw a pin on the big white board we used.

I'm pretty sure we remembered to go back and change that stuff...

Bryon Quertermous said...

It's kind of a joke, but I really don't know what my themes are until I've finished the rough draft. That's usually because I don't know who my characters or what my plot is until I finish the rough draft.

But, once I'm aware of the theme that seems to be rising to the surface, like you, I'll go in and try to pull it out of scenes that may be static or sections that may need some tweaking. It's a nice guide for a guy like me who is mising the plotting gene.

Dana King said...

I sometimes have a theme in mind, but find the book isn't really about that once I start the second draft. To be honest, I can't say my books have themes, not like a high school English teacher means. If someone asks,"What is the book about?" my answer would be, "It's about this guy who get in over his head with mob involvement in his business and his son winds up dead." Maybe the theme is not to get involved in dangerous things over which you have no control. Or maybe it don't shit where you eat. I'm not in a position to say. I wrote it as a story I wanted to tell. What it means to the reader, he can decide for himself.

I don't mind a book with an overarching theme, but I don't want to be bludgeoned about the head and shoulders with it. Let me figure it our for myself. It I get it, cool. If I don't, did the story entertain me, make me think about what just happened here, even in a dark way? If so, I'm satisfied.

John McFetridge said...

Yes, Dana, I agree I don't want to be bludgeoned by theme, it can be very simple - in your example it could be as little as why does he get in over his head? What part of his personality said, "No, I won't go broke, I'll get involved with mobsters?" Is it really beyond his control, or did he just think he could contro it and then realized he couldn't? Was he over confident?

It really wouldn't come up very much, and I'm like Bryon, I start writing the scenes that come into my head that I think are interesting and the theme sometimes reveals itself. (is that too zen?)

(and did I just say I was like Bryon?!?)

Bryon Quertermous said...



Jay Stringer said...

well, it is inbuilt into a lot of what i read. As Russel and i have both talked about on DSD, we like socially driven fiction. Now i'm speaking just for myself here and not the beardy dundonian, but for me that means i really engage with books that have a few themes or social questions buried away in them.

That said, if there is a 'message' to the story that hits me over the head, i'm going to be driven out of the story and lose interest, so it's a balancing act.

As a writer, thats a bit more complex. My first novel was pretty much written by accident, a short story that ran long. But the time i'd hacked, slashed and re-drafted it into a novel, it has a lot of questions about the area i grew up in but was (i hope) a fun and fast crime story above all else. So there was never any plan. For the second one, the first draft of which i've just send off to my agent with a huge sense of relief, was a different approach. There were issues nagging at me, a few things i was angry about and a few questions i wanted to explore. And i found that working them out through a crime novel was much better for my health than getting in arguments in street corners. It was a much tougher process than the first book, and i dont think i'll go about a third in quite the same way. That said, it came out i think in a pretty similar balance to the first one. So hopefully i've found the best balance for myself.